Nightcrawler is a portrait of modern society that comes from first time director David Goyer. Several reviews have focused on the role that television news plays in the events of the film, but television news is irrelevant these days and “if it bleeds it leads” is a truism that’s post-evisceration thanks to films like Network. Instead, Jake Gyllenhaal’s haunting sociopath peers into the windows of society as a whole, and finds a perfect place for himself in an image and profit obsessed cranny of Los Angeles. Nightcrawler is an exciting look at the obsessions and weaknesses of our contemporary society that often go unexamined.
Gyllenhaal is the infernal engine of the picture as Louis Bloom, a man from nowhere lacking moral latitude but with plenty of drive. We are introduced to Louis as he is stealing scrap metal to sell, demonstrating his place at the bottom of the hierarchy. When confronted by a guard Louis proves surprisingly loquacious, spinning an excuse that has the proper details but remains unconvincing. There’s something about Gyllenhaal’s skeletenal Louis that doesn’t sit right. Perhaps it’s the way he openly stares with dark empty eyes, or maybe the lack of body language. Louis complements the guard’s watch, after which he beats up the guards and takes it by force. Nightcrawler shows us this interaction again and again. People are unconvinced by Louis’ equivocation, but it provides an effective camouflage until he is close enough to bite. Throughout Louis proves startlingly effective at getting what he wants, developing new tools to help him in places where direct violence won’t. The only people that he can’t get to are those that immediately reject his placid overtures, such as a foreman who looks past Louis’ words to his deeds and refuses to hire him early in the film.
The language of these placid overtures is the crux of the film. Louis is a walking encyclopedia of success seminars and business-speak, gleaned from spending jobless hours on the internet in his scummy central LA apartment (the only exterior shot of which is an alley). Louis regurgitates more bullshit than a Jordan Belford seminar, attempting to charm people by announcing his goals and personal strengths. This proves much more effective in Louis’ new career as a late night cameraman racing to film tragedy for the morning news channels. Selling footage proves surprisingly lucrative and the news networks, replete with experts on empty words, gently tolerate Louis’ rhetoric. The acquisition and sales of salacious footage proves both competitive and high stress, but Louis literally blooms in this new environment. Chief among his advantages is the fact that Louis does not give a shit about anyone but himself, making him a particularly adept camera holding vulture. Sociopaths are often portrayed as psychotics or deranged, but Goyer shows us a man who is dangerous despite lacking malicious intentions. Louis wants the same things as regular people, he just doesn’t care how he gets it. In Nightcrawler, we see just how quickly a man like this starts to edge around rules of decency and law.
Despite Louis’ strange qualities, he quickly finds success with the network and even begins grooming a protégé employee, a young man who meekly complies with lectures and trespass in order to earn some pocket cash. The cobra is free to slither as long as it facilitates profit. When Louis’ coworkers finally get around to realizing that his platitudes are slowly boxing them in, it is too late. He has made himself essential. In this way, Nightcrawler alludes to our modern ideal of aggressive capitalism. Louis’ rhetoric is essentially corporate jingoism. He sells himself as the Randian self-made man, a fast learner who wants to work from the bottom of the company to the top, network with whoever it takes to get there, and explore new opportunities and acquisitions from a leadership position. Perhaps the familiarity of these bland affirmations makes them sound positive, but the manipulative Louis perfectly represents their selfish focus. Is their manifestation in a sociopath like Louis even a surprise? Through him, Nightcrawler personifies the ugly issues with America’s desire to get rich. In our eagerness to kiss ass and get to the top of the pyramid we learn to believe in the projection of ourselves as go-getters, networkers and organizers who manage ourselves to the money and prestige we deserve. And people and corporations alike value this narcissism because it’s good for business, even when it breaks laws and destroys lives. This kind of attitude is what allows Louis to thrive despite society’s attempts to marginalize people like him who won’t follow rules. Similar arguments are often made with targets like Madoff and Kenneth Lay (as in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis), but Nightcrawler isn’t scapegoating moguls. Instead it suggests that the sociopath appears within everyone when we compromise our morals to get what we want, and there’s a facet of society that blandly encourages us to do just that.
On the way to illustrating this point, Goyer builds a very competent film. The Los Angeles underbelly is an appropriate supporting character, providing miles of traffic lights for Gyllenhaal to stalk. It even mimics Louis’ presence in the clean corporate network offices in the way destitution and insane wealth adjoin. Nightcrawler is well paced, Louis’ excesses are drawn out by his preoccupations in a gradual and logical manner. We are pulled towards the line with Louis before he steps over it. Additionally, Louis’ mission to furtively capture carnage as a voyeur combined with the need to speed across town frames some very tense action scenes. The trespassing voyeur creates a vulnerability that the artifice of other POV films often spoils, as in End of Watch. Although comparisons to Taxi Driver are obvious, we ultimately do not dig as deeply into Louis and the high-pitched characterization of politics at the news studio probably invited the Network comparisons. As Louis might say though, rather than focusing on flaws and wasting productivity, I prefer to see the unique mix of Los Angeles character and Gyllenhaal’s haunting performance as well suited for meeting the goals of today’s movie-going environment. Nightcrawler proves both lurid and entrancing.